Aug 11, 2009

Review of the new anglophone translation, by Colin Gordon

'Work: that which is capable of introducing a significant difference in the field of knowledge, at the cost of certain pains for the author and reader, and with the possible reward of a certain pleasure, namely that of access to another figure of truth'. Michel Foucault's close friend and insightful commentator Paul Veyne recently published, at the age of 75, what may be his magnum opus, L'Empire Greco-Romain. The book is published in a series of which Veyne and Foucault were founding editors, entitled 'Des travaux' (lamely translatable as 'Works'). The motto of the series, cited above, was surely written by Foucault. History of Madness, the book which made Foucault's name and career, written as a doctoral thesis and published in 1961 when he was 34, certainly qualifies as a 'work' in all the designated respects.

That Histoire de la Folie has at last been translated in full, in the year of what would have been Foucault's 80th birthday, is, of course, much to be welcomed. So as to duly celebrate the occasion, we can perhaps leave aside the question of why it has taken so long, how far through the obstruction or negligence of publishers and heirs, how far through the indifference of English-language historians and commentators long content to dismiss or marginalise a work they had never found it necessary to read in full. The English historian Roy Porter, for one, pronounced, towards the end of his own life, that Foucault had been the greatest of historians of psychiatry -- but only, it has to be said, after he had previously indulged at length in cursory caricature of Foucault's work.

There have been four editions of this book in France. The original edition published by Plon in 1961 was titled Folie et Déraison. Histoire de la Folie à l'Age Classique. The second (1963) was heavily abridged for the 10/18 budget paperback series, which in slightly augmented form was translated by Richard Howard in 1965 as Madness and Civilisation. The three unabridged French editions contain identical main texts with differing prefaces and appendices. For the republication by Gallimard in 1972, Foucault shortened the title to Histoire de la Folie à l'Age Classique, suppressed his 1961 preface, and supplied a short new preface explaining the suppression. This edition included two new appendices, a short paper published in 1964 and a response to a critique by Jacques Derrida. The appendices were in turn omitted from the Gallimard Tel edition published in 1976. This English edition contains both prefaces and both appendices, and adds for good documentary measure another reply to Derrida, never included in any French edition, and a facsimile of R.D. Laing's enthusiastic reader's report for the 1965 English translation. There are also some sombre black and white plates of works by Bosch, Dürer, Hogarth, Goya and Fleury, which I think appeared only in the 1961 French edition. Foucault may later have come to view his controversy with Derrida as a storm in a teacup, and Derrida may have come to agree. It is excellent, however, to have the 1961 preface once again available: for its careful balancing of affective engagement and methodological scruple; for the libertarian passion of the closing quotation from René Char's Partage formel: 'A new mystery sings in your bones. Cultivate your legitimate strangeness'; for the proposal of 'a history of limits -- of those obscure gestures . . . through which a culture rejects something which for it will be the Exterior'; and, within the discussion of these 'limit-experiences', for the paragraph which inspired Edward Said: 'In the universality of the Western ratio, there is this division which is the Orient . . . ' [1]. It would be worth investigating whether Foucault's sketch for a comparative historical sociology of social limits and exclusions may have also influenced the current of governmental thinking which a generation later made 'social exclusion' a primary theme of social and urban policy, in France and then in Britain.

Another reason why it is useful to have this Preface once again available is because it shows how crassly Derrida, apart from his challenge to Foucault's reading of Descartes' Meditations and his charges of intellectual terrorism and violence and of an 'act of internment' which 'renders all straightjackets possible', misrepresents the stated project of Foucault's book.[2] Foucault's 1961 preface says that he would have liked to write a history of 'madness itself, in all its vivacity, before it is captured by knowledge', but that this is for more than one reason impossible, and that he therefore proposes to do something else. Derrida states that the 1961 preface proposes to undertake a history of 'madness itself'. Subsequent readers who have not had access to the preface have in some cases credulously accepted this falsehood (at one point even Foucault himself seems to have believed it), despite the evidence of the book, which contains not a word about 'madness itself'. Regrettably, Ian Hacking repeats Derrida's falsehood in his Foreword to this edition.

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